Dr. Chinchu Cherian successfully balances motherhood, research and teaching
August 29, 2022
Former Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, Geotechnical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras
Master of Technology (Environmental Geotechnology), National Institute of Technology
Bachelor of Technology (Civil Engineering), Mar Athanasius College of Engineering
Ernakulam, Kerala, India
“When female role models with kids and families continue to pursue their dreams and succeed, they tell us that nothing is impossible.”
IN THE FALL OF 2018, IN ERNAKULAM, KERALA, INDIA, civil engineer Dr. Chinchu Cherian and her family were about to welcome a new son and brother into their fold. At the time, Kelowna, British Columbia, and UBC Okanagan were 13,200 kilometres away, but even further from their minds.
While UBCO is lauded for having a close-knit campus community, the significance of its global reach spanning oceans and crossing borders cannot be muted. It was through an acquaintance of Dr. Cherian’s doctoral supervisor, Dr. Dali Naidu Arnepalli at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, that a life-changing opportunity would present itself.
“Dr. Arnepalli used to tell me that your graph should always be going up,” says Dr. Cherian, gesturing towards the ceiling. “With family and kids, I thought it was time to settle down. I had given up on my aspirations to pursue further heights in my career. I was happy that way, but Dr. Arnepalli added wings to my dreams again.” With this enthusiastic encouragement—and while six months pregnant—Dr. Cherian applied for and received a fellowship with Dr. Sumi Siddiqua in UBCO’s School of Engineering.
The 13,200-kilometre span between Ernakulam and Kelowna seemed to narrow with the help of social media. “My husband found an online video of Dr. Siddiqua and looked at the names of people who liked it on Facebook. He saw a familiar Indian name and sent her a personal message.”
As luck would have it, this stranger―Dr. Anupama Pillai―had done a post-doctoral fellowship at UBCO and hailed from their home province in India. “After meeting her online, she gave us some advice about relocating and information about Canada. She was very supportive. We finally met in person when we arrived in British Columbia and have been great friends since.”
Having a female role model such as Dr. Siddiqua in an industry that is commonly perceived as being male-dominated has been crucial to Dr. Cherian. “I consider myself lucky to have a supervisor in Dr. Siddiqua,” she says. “Only another woman can 100 per cent understand the challenges faced by a working mother. The positive and welcoming environment at UBC Okanagan has given me the confidence to achieve a high calibre of work.”
Dr. Cherian notes that while there are considerate male supervisors, communication is much easier when there’s a shared understanding of what it means to be a mother. “When female role models that have kids and families continue to pursue their dreams and succeed, they tell us that nothing is impossible.”
A keystone project for Dr. Cherian has been her research conducted with support from a Mitacs Elevate Scholarship and in partnership with BC’s pulp-mill industry. Over the course of two years, her team looked for ways to recycle wood fly ash, a pulp-mill waste product, into a green alternative to portland cement in the construction of concrete roads and buildings. “The fundamental technologies are well developed,” Dr. Cherian says. “It’s our job to make them more sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
She adds: “While these are small steps, this type of research is happening globally. The cumulative result will have a positive impact on our future.”
After completing her Mitacs fellowship, Dr. Cherian immersed herself in teaching opportunities in the School of Engineering. “I tell my friends that when you’re a teacher, you don’t age, you always feel like a student yourself.” She has formed strong relationships with her diverse group of students and credits being a mother as having informed her teaching style. “Through my son and daughter, I’ve learned to appreciate that different people have different perspectives and needs that must be met.”
This appreciation was the catalyst for Dr. Cherian’s esteem for the Disability Resource Centre and the Equity and Inclusion Office. “We see such positive outcomes with the implementation of these services at UBCO,” she says. “It’s my goal to advocate for the support of students from a variety of facets including mental health and the removal of barriers to education, especially in places where these pillars don’t exist.”
Dr. Cherian is thrilled to be extending her work with Dr. Siddiqua as a Research Engineer in the School of Engineering and hopes to continue sharing her passions for civil engineering, diversity and sustainability with students as a Sessional Instructor this fall.